Akhmetshin’s Involvement and the Trump Dossier

Over the course of the slow reveal of details about the meeting Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had on June 9, 2016 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the focus has rightly been on the changing stories of the initially identified players.

It was about adoption, maybe she made some vague statements, oh yeah, those vague statements were oppo research, yes, yes, here are the emails showing that oppo research came from an affirmative effort in Russia to elect Dad, how can a ‘good boy‘ be expected to remember all the Russians involved in a meeting? Don Jr. blathered until, perhaps, his newly-hired lawyer shut him up.

I have no ties to the Russian government, I had no damaging information and if I did I had no intention of leaving it, well, maybe I did get information directly from a top Russian prosecutor, explained Veselnitskaya over the course of the week.

I accidentally hit send, I met with no foreigners, maybe there were Russians, but not Veselnitskaya, oh yeah, maybe her too, my lawyers told Pop’s lawyers, well maybe I never got around to mentioning it to him personally, the tale of Kushner’s difficulties identifying all the Russians he met with evolved over the week, at which point Jamie Gorelick removed herself from any responsibility criminally defending the guy.

All of which climaxed in the news that former Russian intelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin and accused (before the accusation was withdrawn) hacker also attended the meeting.

Akhmetshin has boasted to associates that he had served in the military with a group known as the Osoby Otdel, or Special Section, which in the Soviet period was a division of the K.G.B. The group was distinct from the G.R.U., or Main Intelligence Directorate of the defense ministry, an organization with which he has denied any affiliation.

[snip]

The Justice Department contacted Mr. Akhmetshin in March and asked him why he did not register his work for the nonprofit group under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires anyone who lobbies in the United States on behalf of foreign interests to disclose their work to the Justice Department. Mr. Akhmetshin responded to the Justice Department in April, saying he had properly registered under congressional lobbying rules.

In 2015, International Mineral Resources, a mining company based in the Netherlands, accused Mr. Akhmetshin of hacking into its computer systems, stealing confidential information and unlawfully disseminating it as part of a smear campaign orchestrated by a rival Russian mining firm.

All of which, given that the meeting took place a week before hacked emails started coming out, sure makes it look like the principals were deliberately hiding Akhmetshin’s participation in the meeting, though Akhmetshin claims he got pulled into the meeting that day, still wearing his jeans and t-shirt.

He said he had learned about the meeting only that day when Veselnitskaya asked him to attend. He said he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Given all these changing stories and what they might hide I’d like to return to Don Sr.’s initial response. Way back on Sunday, the spox for Trump’s lawyers (who reportedly had known of these emails for three weeks) claimed the meeting had been a set-up by the same intelligence firm, Fusion GPS, that put together the Trump dossier.

“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” Mark Corallo, spokesperson for Trump’s outside counsel, said in a statement released a few hours after the original New York Times story published.

“Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” Corallo continued, referring to the strategic intelligence firm hired by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats, to do opposition research on the candidate.

(Fusion GPS eventually retained former MI-6 agent Christopher Steele to research potential connections between Trump and Russia, an investigation that resulted in a dossier that alleged financial, political, and personal connections between the then-president-elect and the Kremlin—a dossier that Trump’s communications team might have preferred to go unmentioned.)

“These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner,” Corallo concluded.

Even as all this was happening, Chuck Grassley released a testimony list suggesting the head of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, would testify aside the key player accusing Akhmetshin of unlawfully lobbying for Russia, William Browder. But Simpson continues, as he started in June, to refuse to testify willingly.

The insinuation this meeting was all a set-up by a Clinton-surrogate was absolutely a cheap attempt, worthy of Corallo, to flip this story. But as I said earlier in this week, it’s more clever than first assumed. As I noted, a full eleven days after the meeting (and five days after the first stolen documents appeared), Fusion was still presenting conflicting details about whether Russian-derived Clinton dirt had been shared with Trump’s campaign, ultimately claiming, however, that it hadn’t.

The report, dated 11 days after the Veselnitskaya meeting, states that the Kremlin has a dossier on Clinton, but that it has not as yet been distributed abroad.

That claim is seemingly contradicted by the claims of Source A (a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure) and Source D. Indeed, Source D appears to have claimed, in June, that dirt from Russia was helpful.

Ultimately, though, the memo seems to credit Source B, “a former top level Russian intelligence officer” and Source G, a senior Kremlin official, who said the dossier, attributed here to the FSB, had not yet been shared with Trump or anyone else in America.

Consider: First, Akhmetshin himself qualifies as a former intelligence officer (though it’s not clear how senior he was). He might have reason to deny that intelligence he tried to pass was the intelligence in question. And he’d likely be right, given that the Clinton dossier was purportedly a FSB, not a GRU, product. But it’s even possible that he didn’t want Hillary to know that he or a colleague was dealing dirt, however bad.

Nevertheless, the senior-most Russian quoted in the dossier compiled for Hillary Clinton claimed — and Steele appears to have believed — that Russia’s dirt on Hillary Clinton had not yet been released.

As I noted (and others have expanded elsewhere) some of these sources could be people who attended the meeting, particularly once we learn which Agalarov was involved and how closely.

It is definitely cheap to suggest that having three principals from Trump’s campaign meet with Russians claiming to represent the wishes of the Russian government is just an opposition plot invented by a Hillary surrogate. But the feedback loop within Fusion and the narrow circle of key Russian sources on Trump’s campaign is definitely worth considering.

Kushner’s Digital Armies and Facebook’s .1%

Back in May, I called attention to NYT’s mention of the importance of Jared Kushner’s successful reversal of his father-in-law’s digital targeting to cement their relationship.

Amid its larger narrative that Kushner and Trump actually haven’t been that close all that long, the NYT also reminds that Kushner got a lot of credit from his father-in-law for reviving the digital aspect of the campaign.

Mr. Kushner’s reported feeler to the Russians even as President Barack Obama remained in charge of American foreign policy was a trademark move by someone with a deep confidence in his abilities that critics say borders on conceit, people close to him said. And it echoes his history of sailing forth into unknown territory, including buying a newspaper at age 25 and developing a data-analytics program that he has said helped deliver the presidency to his father-in-law.

[snip]

Despite the perception that he is the one untouchable adviser in the president’s inner circle, Mr. Kushner was not especially close to his father-in-law before the 2016 campaign. The two bonded when Mr. Kushner helped to take over the campaign’s faltering digital operation and to sell a reluctant Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox News’s parent company, on the viability of his father-in-law’s candidacy by showing him videos of Mr. Trump’s rally during a lunch at Fox headquarters in mid-2015.

There lots of reasons to look askance at Trump’s data program, even before you consider that it was so central in a year where Trump’s opponent got hacked. So I find it notable (which is where I’ll leave it, for now) that Kushner’s role in the digital side of the campaign was so central to his perceived closeness to Trump.

McClatchy reports that the Congressional investigation committees are looking into my suspicions: that Kushner’s digital targeting may have been assisted by Russian obtained data (though I hope someone considers whether Russians also hacked Hillary’s analytics programs, blinding her to problems in places like MI).

Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation – overseen by Jared Kushner – helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states – areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.

I’m glad they are doing this, but I’m a bit troubled by the belief (based in part on what I consider unproven analysis that Congress has already mainlined) that all the trolls and bots were Russian.

By Election Day, an automated Kremlin cyberattack of unprecedented scale and sophistication had delivered critical and phony news about the Democratic presidential nominee to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of millions of voters. Some investigators suspect the Russians targeted voters in swing states, even in key precincts.

Russia’s operation used computer commands knowns as “bots” to collect and dramatically heighten the reach of negative or fabricated news about Clinton, including a story in the final days of the campaign accusing her of running a pedophile ring at a Washington pizzeria.

One source familiar with Justice’s criminal probe said investigators doubt Russian operatives controlling the so-called robotic cyber commands that fetched and distributed fake news stories could have independently “known where to specifically target … to which high-impact states and districts in those states.”

I say this for two reasons. First, because a lot of it was self-evidently coming from 4Chan. 4Chan would (and I suspect has been) willfully manipulated by Russians or their agents, but a lot of the actual activity was American.

And that instinct is backed by an entity that has far better data than the researchers Congress has heard from (publicly at least): Facebook. Facebook, which was ground zero for the sharing of fake stories during the campaign, maintains that just .1% of the “civic content” on Facebook during the campaign was malicious propaganda.

In a fascinating report on the use of the social media platform for Information Operations released yesterday, Facebook make a startling claim. Less than .1% of what got shared during the election was shared by accounts set up to engage in malicious propaganda.

Concurrently, a separate set of malicious actors engaged in false amplification using inauthentic Facebook accounts to push narratives and themes that reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data. Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.12

In short, while we acknowledge the ongoing challenge of monitoring and guarding against information operations, the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues.

12 To estimate magnitude, we compiled a cross functional team of engineers, analysts, and data scientists to examine posts that were classified as related to civic engagement between September and December 2016. We compared that data with data derived from the behavior of accounts we believe to be related to Information Operations. The reach of the content spread by these accounts was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content on Facebook.

And they say this in a report that also coyly confirms they’ve got data confirming Russia’s role in the election.

But in the US election section, the report includes a coy passage stating that it cannot definitively attribute who sponsored the false amplification, even while it states that its data does not contradict the Intelligence Community’s attribution of the effort to Russian intelligence.

Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.

That presents the possibility (one that is quite likely) that Facebook has far more specific forensic data on the .1% of accounts it deems malicious amplifiers that it coyly suggests it knows to be Russian intelligence. Note, too, that the report is quite clear that this is human-driven activity, not bot-driven.

All of which is my way of saying the Committees really ought to bring in Facebook’s engineers (in closed session so Facebook doesn’t freak customers out over the kinds of analytics it can do), to understand what this .1% really means, as well as to have a sense of how the .1% interacted with the far larger group of people spreading fake stories.

As I say over and over, some of this is definitely Russian. But the underlying activities — the ratfucking being led by people who were ratfucking while Putin was still in law school — are also things Republicans do and have been doing for decades.

Let’s understand if Kushner served as a pivot between data stolen by Russians and fake news targeted at Michigan (among other states). But let’s be clear that some of the trolling was done by red-blooded Americans.

Yet More Proof Obama Didn’t “Tapp” Trump

CNN is reporting that Robert Mueller’s investigation only recently learned of the June 9, 2016 meeting between Don Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Natalia Veselnitskaya, but will now include it in the scope of the investigation.

The details of the interactions between Trump Jr., Goldstone and Veselnitskaya weren’t fully known to federal investigators until recently, according to three US officials familiar with the probe. The FBI, as part of its counter intelligence probe and the investigation into Russian meddling, has scrutinized some of Donald Trump Jr.’s business dealings and meetings even before the latest meeting was disclosed, one of the US officials said.

Now, Mueller’s probe will look at the meeting and email exchanges that Trump Jr. disclosed as part of its investigation, according to the US official briefed on the matter.

A different CNN report strongly suggests the government learned it as a result of Kushner’s revisions to his SF86 forms — which it sounds like he has revised almost as many times as Karl Rove revised his grand jury testimony in the CIA leak case.

The emails with Donald Trump Jr. about the Russian meeting were discovered as Kushner and his legal team prepared for his testimony before Congress as they were doing a document review, a source familiar with the process told CNN.

As soon as the document was discovered, Kushner’s disclosure form was amended to include the meeting, the source said.

This means that Kushner’s SF-86 changed a number of times: First, the inaccurate form, which left blank the foreign contacts section. Next (and the next day), the form was amended to say that he had multiple contacts and would disclose those. The process of gathering information progressed throughout the winter and spring. Then the form was amended yet again to include the Trump Jr. meeting as soon as it was discovered, a source with knowledge of the process told CNN.

In other words, until Kushner himself revealed these emails, the FBI didn’t have them, or even know about this meeting.

Which further confirms what I noted here: in addition to all the other things this email indicates, it confirms the Obama NSA did not “tapp” the Trump campaign.

That may not be a surprise: as a British citizen and someone who spends some or most of his time in the US, Rob Goldstone would not be easily targetable in NSA spying, and the Russian names included in the email would not be targetable under “about” collection.

But this also means that the FBI found nothing to justify collecting the email accounts of these recipients themselves, including Don Jr, Kushner, and even Manafort, the latter of whom has been under investigation for money laundering (though it’s not clear what emails these are).

So either this means the FBI only recent started collecting the emails of these men (and in so doing discovered the meeting), or still hasn’t.

Once again, whatever else the dumbass son did by releasing this email, he has helped to prove, once and for all, that Obama did not “tapp” Trump’s campaign.

Don Jr Provides Proof Obama Didn’t “Tapp” Trump

As you’ve no doubt heard, the NYT reported out the details of the meeting between Don Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Natalia Veselnitskaya. It not only makes clear that Veselnitskaya was introduced as an agent of the Russian government, but that Rob Goldstone, who set up the meeting, presented it as part of Russia’s efforts to help Trump. (And yes, for those asking in this thread, I do consider this the kind of evidence that rises to the level of collusion which was not present in the first round of this story.)

The documents “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” read the email, written by a trusted intermediary, who added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

If the future president’s elder son was surprised or disturbed by the provenance of the promised material — or the notion that it was part of a continuing effort by the Russian government to aid his father’s campaign — he gave no indication.

He replied within minutes: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Four days later, after a flurry of emails, the intermediary wrote back, proposing a meeting in New York on Thursday with a “Russian government attorney.”

In an attempt to beat the NYT’s reporting (and because he is painfully stupid), Don Jr posted the emails in question. The email metadata makes it clear that the meeting involved Russia and Hillary — and included Jared and Manafort. (I’m stealing Matt Tait’s screencaps, which are here.)

Matt Tait annotated the most damning line, making it clear this was an effort on the part of Russia — which Don Jr presumably already knew about — to help Trump.

This one line, once and for all, proves that the NSA under President Obama did not “tapp” Trump and his associates. That’s because in the the IC report on the Russia hack (and as recently as Admiral Mike Rogers’ most recent appearance before Congress), NSA only had moderate confidence in the conclusion that Putin affirmatively supported Trump.

Had the NSA collected this email, they would have had high confidence Putin was affirmatively helping Trump. (This is a point Tait also made not long after I made it.) But Rogers has said there was something about the source of the prior intelligence supporting this point that led NSA to adopt a more conservative stance than FBI and CIA.

So, yeah, the dumbass son not only incriminated himself, but he did away with one of the few talking points the GOP had left.

Be Careful How You Define Collusion: On the Veselnitskaya Bombshell and the Steele Dossier

See update, below, which provides evidence that was not present when I wrote this post. 

The NYT has a new bombshell showing that Don Jr. was willing to meet with someone to get Russian dirt on Hillary. It is damning. But Democrats should be very careful about calling it collusion, yet.

On Saturday, the NYT reported that Don Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met on June 9 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who has worked to overturn the Magnitsky sanctions. In Don Jr’s first response to the NYT, he admitted to the meeting, but said it focused primarily on adoptions (which means it focused on the sanctions).

Then, yesterday, NYT reported that Don Jr took the meeting because he was promised Russia-related dirt on Hillary. With that new detail, Don Jr changed his story, admitting that’s why he took the meeting, though he claimed that the information Veselnitskaya offered “made no sense.”

In a statement on Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. said he had met with the Russian lawyer at the request of an acquaintance. “After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

He said she then turned the conversation to adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, an American law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. The law so enraged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that he retaliated by halting American adoptions of Russian children.

“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Mr. Trump said.

WaPo revealed that the meeting was set up by music publicist Rob Goldstone, and hints that he may have done so at the behest of Emin Agalarov (which Goldstone has since confirmed).

He did not name the acquaintance, but in an interview Sunday, Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who is friendly with Trump Jr., told The Washington Post that he had arranged the meeting at the request of a Russian client and had attended it along with Veselnitskaya.

Goldstone has been active with the Miss Universe pageant and works as a manager for Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop star whose father is a wealthy Moscow developer who sponsored the pageant in the Russian capital in 2013.

This news is damning for several reasons. Kushner failed to disclose it at first in his clearance application, and Don Jr didn’t reveal it in past interviews about meeting with Russians. Everyone tried to hide this at first.

But thus far, it is not evidence of collusion, contrary to what a lot of people are saying.

That’s true, most obviously, because we only have the implicit offer of a quid pro quo: dirt on Hillary — the source of which is unknown — in exchange for sanctions relief. We don’t (yet) have evidence that Don Jr and his co-conspirators acted on that quid pro quo.

But it’s also true because if that’s the standard for collusion, then Hillary’s campaign is in trouble for doing the same.

Remember: A supporter of Hillary Clinton paid an opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, to hire a British spy who in turn paid money to Russians — including people even closer to the Kremlin than Veselnitskaya — for Russia-related dirt on Don Jr’s dad.

Yes, the Clinton campaign was full of adults, and so kept their Russian-paying oppo research far better removed from the key players on the campaign than Trump’s campaign, which was run by incompetents. But if obtaining dirt from Russians — even paying Russians to obtain dirt — is collusion, then a whole bunch of people colluded with Russians (and a bunch of other foreign entities, I’m sure), including whatever Republican originally paid Fusion for dirt on Trump.

Breaking: Our political process is sleazy as fuck (but then, so are most of our politicians).

The claim that merely meeting with Veselnitskaya is collusion is all the more dangerous given that it invokes some weird details about the Fusion dossier. Most importantly, as Trump’s lawyer’s spox has pointed out (incoherently, at first), like whatever Clinton supporter retained the oppo research firm, Veselnitskaya also employed Fusion. An update to NYT’s Friday story laid some of this out, in the form of Mark Corallo’s more clever than you actually might think suggestion that the Democrats might have paid Fusion to set up this meeting.

In an interview, Mr. [Mark] Corallo explained that Ms. Veselnitskaya, in her anti-Magnitsky campaign, employs a private investigator whose firm, Fusion GPS, produced an intelligence dossier that contained unproven allegations against the president. In a statement, the firm said, “Fusion GPS learned about this meeting from news reports and had no prior knowledge of it. Any claim that Fusion GPS arranged or facilitated this meeting in any way is false.”

[snip]

One of Ms. Veselnitskaya’s clients is Denis Katsyv, the Russian owner of a Cyprus-based investment company called Prevezon Holdings. He is the son of Petr Katsyv, the vice president of the state-owned Russian Railways and a former deputy governor of the Moscow region. In a civil forfeiture case prosecuted by Mr. Bharara’s office, the Justice Department alleged that Prevezon had helped launder money tied to a $230 million corruption scheme exposed by Mr. Magnitsky by parking it in New York real estate and bank accounts. As a result, the government froze $14 million of its assets. Prevezon recently settled the case for $6 million without admitting wrongdoing.

[snip]

Besides the private investigator whose firm produced the Trump dossier, the lobbying team included Rinat Akhmetshin, an émigré to the United States who once served as a Soviet military officer and who has been called a Russian political gun for hire.

Republicans have already pointed to Akhmetshin’s work with Fusion as a way to discredit the Steele dossier. Now they are (or at least were, before the really damning bits came out) using it to attempt to discredit the most damning detail about Trump’s ties to Russians.

But there in one other interesting detail.

The first report (that we have) reflecting Christopher Steele’s work (and also the first report that some unknown Democrat paid for after earlier oppo research had been paid for by some Republican) is dated June 20.

The report, dated 11 days after the Veselnitskaya meeting, states that the Kremlin has a dossier on Clinton, but that it has not as yet been distributed abroad.

That claim is seemingly contradicted by the claims of Source A (a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure) and Source D. Indeed, Source D appears to have claimed, in June, that dirt from Russia was helpful.

Ultimately, though, the memo seems to credit Source B, “a former top level Russian intelligence officer” and Source G, a senior Kremlin official, who said the dossier, attributed here to the FSB, had not yet been shared with Trump or anyone else in America.

Consider: First, Akhmetshin himself qualifies as a former intelligence officer (though it’s not clear how senior he was). He might have reason to deny that intelligence he tried to pass was the intelligence in question. And he’d likely be right, given that the Clinton dossier was purportedly a FSB, not a GRU, product. But it’s even possible that he didn’t want Hillary to know that he or a colleague was dealing dirt, however bad.

Nevertheless, the senior-most Russian quoted in the dossier compiled for Hillary Clinton claimed — and Steele appears to have believed — that Russia’s dirt on Hillary Clinton had not yet been released.

Which doesn’t really help the treatment of this as a scandal.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect there is more to this story. But I also note that Democrats should be really careful not to get too far ahead of this one, for fear of where it will lead.

Update: NYT’s latest provides evidence that gets you far closer to collusion than the previous evidence.

Mr. Goldstone’s message, as described to The New York Times by the three people, indicates that the Russian government was the source of the potentially damaging information. It does not elaborate on the wider effort by Moscow to help the Trump campaign. There is no evidence to suggest that the promised damaging information was related to Russian government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails.

Revisiting Obama on the Weakness of American Democracy

It has become fashionable, of late, for pundits to say President Obama failed to respond accordingly to the Russian hack last year. As I showed in this analysis of WaPo’s 8300 word opus making that argument, such claims tend to give the views of the CIA and Democrats most emphasis, obscuring the degree to which even within the Intelligence Community there was less certainty than narrative reconstructions make out. They also tend to ignore some key events — like assassinations and indictments of Russian hackers — in claiming nothing has happened, effectively pretending that sanctions are the necessary and exclusive possible response. Significantly, they also tend to ignore ongoing developments, most notably the Shadow Brokers leaks and the global ransomware launched using it, that may constrain our possible responses for the moment.

In other words, the narrative condemning Obama inaction ignores a lot.

Such analyses also miss another important point, something Obama pointed out in his December speech on the Russian hack. It’s a point I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, especially today.

To the extent the Russian hack was effective, Obama argued, it’s because our own politics have made us vulnerable.

Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is. That’s the thing that makes us vulnerable.

If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect, because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff that folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.

To the extent that our political dialogue is such where everything is under suspicion, everybody is corrupt and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are full of malevolent actors — if that’s the storyline that’s being put out there by whatever party is out of power, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument with facts that are made up, voters who have been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they’re going to believe it.

So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it’s been.

I’m unsympathetic to Obama’s complaints that people distrust our institutions. His DOJ, after all, failed to prosecute torturers, illegal wiretappers, and most of all, the banksters that crashed our economy. The distrust of our institutions, including the press that got us into the Iraq War, has been earned.

We need to start thinking about what they would need to do to earn trust anew.

But Obama is right about why the hack succeeded, to the extent it did. Almost everything Russia did — create fake scandals, try to tamper with the ability to vote — the Republicans (and occasionally, Democrats too) have been doing for decades. In fact, we now know that a long-time GOP ratfucker, Peter W Smith, was even trolling hacker forums looking for someone who might have hacked Hillary’s private server. So whatever the Russians did, they largely just joined the predictable and persistent GOP wave doing precisely the same.

And for decades, we have tolerated that — explicit voter suppression, fake scandals, cheating to win — from the GOP.

As I said last week, when Democrats were responding to Kris Kobach’s latest attempt to suppress the vote, it’s time for all patriotic Americans to establish and commit to a standard for our democracy, one that doesn’t tolerate the same tactics a foreign government would use to its advantage.

We’re stuck with the Republicans for at least two more years, and they’re determined to do as much damage to our democracy to prevent paying any price for the crap they’re currently pulling, so it may be longer than that. But we need to think of this about restoring our democracy, not just beating the other team.

Happy Fourth of July. May we find a way to keep the Republic.

The Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

How Did Reality Winner Know to Look for the Russian Hack Document?

There’s a detail about the Reality Winner case that I’ve been thinking about. She appears to have known to look for the report she ultimately leaked to The Intercept. From the SW affidavit:

On or about May 9. 2017. four days after the publication of the classified report, WINNER conducted searches on the U.S. Government Agency’s classified system for certain search terms, which led WINNER to identify the intelligence reporting. On or about May 9, 2017, WINNER also printed the intelligence reporting. A review of WINNER’S computer history revealed she did not print any other intelligence report in May 2017.

And the complaint:

On June 3, 2017, your affiant spoke to WINNER at her home in Augusta, Georgia. During that conversation, WINNER admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a “need to know,” and with knowledge that the intelligence reporting was classified.

So days after a report for which she didn’t have the need to know was completed, she knew the search terms to use to find it.

How did she learn about it?

I assume she heard about it from chatter among colleagues (I wonder whether anyone else who didn’t have a need to know searched for the report as well, perhaps only to read it to leak its substance?). But I find it striking that a somewhat innocuous report generated enough chatter for her to go looking for it.

Who Would Have Told Trump to Go Back to Demand a Patronage Relationship with Comey?

Jim Comey made a comment in his testimony the other day I’ve not seen others mention. Mark Warner asked him to explain this comment on patronage from his written testimony.

The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.

My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.

I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President. A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

When Warner asked Comey to explain this comment at Thursday’s hearing, Comey explained he thought that Trump was belatedly trying to get something from Comey in exchange for letting him stay on his job.

WARNER: Let me move to the January 27th dinner, where you said “The president began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI director.”

He also indicated that “lots of people” again your words, “Wanted the job.” You go on to say the dinner itself was “Seemingly an effort to” to quote have you ask him for your job and create some “patronage” relationship. The president seems from my reading of your memo to be holding your job or your possibility of continuing your job over your head in a fairly direct way. What was your impression, and what did you mean by this notion of a patronage relationship?

COMEY: Well, my impression, and again it’s my impression, I could always be wrong but my common sense told me what was going on is, either he had concluded or someone had told him that you didn’t, you’ve already asked Comey to stay, and you didn’t get anything for it. And that the dinner was an effort to build a relationship, in fact, he asked specifically, of loyalty in the context of asking me to stay. As I said, what was odd about that is we’d already talked twice about it by that point and he said I very much hope you’ll stay. In fact, I just remembered sitting a third, when you’ve seen the. IC tour of me walking across the blue room, and what the president whispered in my ear was “I really look forward to working with you.” So after those encounters —

WARNER: That was a few days before your firing.

COMEY: On the Sunday after the inauguration. The next Friday I have dinner and the president begins by wanting to talk about my job and so I’m sitting there thinking wait a minute three times we’ve already, you’ve already asked me to stay or talked about me staying. My common sense, again I could be wrong but my common sense told me what’s going on here is, he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job. [my emphasis]

Comey explained that — after already having been assured three times that he would remain in his position — Trump raised the issue anew in a private dinner. Comey didn’t say this, but this happened the day after Sally Yates first told White House Counsel Don McGahn that Mike Flynn had misrepresented his comments to Sergey Kislyak. And in that dinner, Trump implied that if Comey wanted to stay in the job he’d been offered three times already, he had to give Trump loyalty.

What I’m especially interested in is what Comey believed elicited this: Comey figured that “either [Trump] had concluded or someone [else] had told [Trump] that you didn’t, you’ve already asked Comey to stay, and you didn’t get anything for it” which is what led Trump to invite Trump for dinner.

Given the timing, it would be interesting all by itself if Trump had decided on his own to get some kind of commitment from Comey in order to keep his job, because it would make it far more likely that McGahn told Trump about Yates’ concerns.

But Comey testified that he thought that perhaps someone else went to Trump and suggested he should go back to Comey and try to demand loyalty to keep his job.

Who?

Does Comey think Mike Flynn did this? Don McGahn (which would be downright shocking)? Or did he think that one of the two people who lingered at the next weird meeting alone with Trump — Attorney General Sessions or Son-in-Law-in-Chief Jared Kushner — made the suggestion?

He didn’t say. But I find the suggestion that Comey believes someone may have — at the same time as DOJ was telling the White House that Mike Flynn was in trouble — encouraged Trump to go make demands from Comey.

Sessions Recusal: Election And/Or Russia?

Back when Jeff Sessions recused from the investigation into Trump, I noted that it was actually fairly narrow. He recused from election-related issues, but said nothing about Russia.

[T]he only thing he is recusing from is “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

Which is why I was so interested that Jim Comey emphasized something else in his testimony (see this post on this topic) — issues pertaining to Russia. [my emphasis throughout]

We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)

This came up in his hearing yesterday, as well. First Wyden asked why Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing if he got fired for continuing to investigate Mike Flynn’s ties to Russia.

WYDEN: Let me turn to the attorney general. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general’s interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?

COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.

WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions’s adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.

COMEY: That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know.

Then Kamala Harris asked whether there had been any official guidance on recusal.

HARRIS: Thank you. As a former attorney general, I have a series of questions in connection with your connection with the attorney general while you were FBI director. What is your understanding of the parameters of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation?

COMEY: I think it’s described in a written release from DOJ which I don’t remember sitting here but the gist is he will be recused from all matters relating to Russia or the campaign. Or the activities of Russia and the ’16 election or something like that.

HARRIS: So, is your knowledge of the extent of the recusal based on the public statements he’s made?

COMEY: Correct.

HARRIS: Is there any kind of memorandum issued from the attorney general to the FBI outlining the parameters of his recusal?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of.

In every comment, Comey emphasized the Russian aspect. Indeed, most of his comments only mention Russia; just one instance mentions the election.

Indeed, yesterday’s hearing made it clear that Comey believed Sessions should be recused from Russia-related issues because of unclassified issues that include his undisclosed two (now three) conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

After yesterday’s hearing, DOJ issued a statement (reproduced in its entirely below), and also released an email that appears to serve as the written guidance on Sessions’ recusal. Yesterday’s statement makes the limitation to election-related issues even more explicit.

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

So while the email directive does state Sessions’ recusal “extends to Department responses to Congressional and media inquiries related to any such investigations,” not a single thing from DOJ ever mentions the word Russia.

There are actually many important potential implications of this.

It may mean, for example, that Sessions feels he had every right to help Trump fire Comey for his aggressive investigation in Russian issues — even in spite of the fact that his own actions may be reviewed in the Russian investigation — because the Flynn investigation pertained to issues that happened after the election.

More alarmingly, it may mean that there will be a squabble about the scope of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which has already started digging into matters of Russian corruption that go back years, because Rod Rosenstein overstepped the scope of his own authority based on the limits of Sessions’ recusal.

Jim Comey thinks that as soon as February 14, it was clear that Sessions had to recuse from Russian related issues. Instead (all the evidence suggests) he recused only from election related issues.

The difference in understanding here is troubling.

Update: A friend notes that Jeff Sessions basically relied on Rod Rosenstein’s letter in recommending Trump fire Comey.

[F]or the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.

The friend suggested that because Comey’s actions implicated the election, that means Sessions intervened in matter pertaining to the election (albeit for Trump’s opponent).

I’m not so sure. The phrasing of Rosenstein’s letter here is critical. Democrats may be angry at Comey for reopening the investigation (and sending a sure-to-leak letter to a stable of GOP Committee Chairs) days before the election. So to Democrats, Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation pertains to the election.

But Rosenstein frames the issue in terms of “usurp[ing] the Attorney General’s authority” and “supplant[ing] federal prosecutors and assum[ing] control of the Justice Department.” While Rosenstein cites Eric Holder and Donald Ayer describing how Comey’s actions violated long-standing policies pertaining to comments in advance of elections, the Deputy Attorney General himself pitches it as insubordination.

Update: On Twitter Charlie Savage suggested the scope of the recusal could be taken from the language of Comey’s confirmation of the investigation in a HPSCI hearing on March 20, arguing that on March 2, when Sessions recused, the investigation and its ties to campaign members who spoke to Russians had not yet been disclosed.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

Except this statement says nothing about Jeff Sessions’ recusal, and in Thursday’s testimony, Comey said he was unaware of a memo aside from Sessions public statement. As noted above, the email that DOJ has now pointed to says nothing about Russia.

Plus, even if the recusal originally intended to include the secret Russia investigation, the statement written on Thursday, very clearly in response to Comey’s testimony and repeated claims that Sessions had to recuse from Russia-related issues, said the only reason Sessions recused was because of the campaign tie. And as I noted in my original post on the scope of Sessions’ recusal, he played games in his admission of conversations with Sergey Kislyak as to whether they pertained to Russia.

Update: In a March 6 letter to SJC claiming he didn’t need to correct his false testimony on conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Sessions said that his recusal should cover Russian contacts with the Trump transition and administration.

The March 3, 2017, letter also asked why I had not recused myself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” I understand the scope of the recusal as described in the Department’s press release would include any such matters.

This would seem to conflict with Thursday’s statement.

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2017

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ISSUES STATEMENT ON TESTIMONY OF FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY

 

WASHINGTON – In response to testimony given today by former FBI Director James Comey, Department of Justice Spokesman Ian Prior issued the following statement:

  • Shortly after being sworn in, Attorney General Sessions began consulting with career Department of Justice ethics officials to determine whether he should recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

Those discussions were centered upon 28 CFR 45.2, which provides that a Department of Justice attorney should not participate in investigations that may involve entities or individuals with whom the attorney has a political or personal relationship. That regulation goes on to define “political relationship” as:

“[A] close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof ***”

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

  • In his testimony, Mr. Comey stated that he was “not *** aware of” “any kind of memorandum issued from the Attorney General or the Department of Justice to the FBI outlining the parameters of [the Attorney General’s] recusal.” However, on March 2, 2017, the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff sent the attached email specifically informing Mr. Comey and other relevant Department officials of the recusal and its parameters, and advising that each of them instruct their staff “not to brief the Attorney General *** about, or otherwise involve the Attorney General *** in, any such matters described.”
  • During his testimony, Mr. Comey confirmed that he did not inform the Attorney General of his concerns about the substance of any one-on-one conversation he had with the President. Mr. Comey said, following a morning threat briefing, that he wanted to ensure he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House. The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.
  • Despite previous inaccurate media reports, Mr. Comey did not say that he ever asked anyone at the Department of Justice for more resources related to this investigation.
  • In conclusion, it is important to note that after his initial meeting with career ethics officials regarding recusal (and including the period prior to his formal recusal on March 2, 2017), the Attorney General has not been briefed on or participated in any investigation within the scope of his recusal.

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